After another disappointing first round exit to the 2018-19 season, the Rochester Americans gear up for another year in which playoffs are expected.
While three of their top five scorers from a year ago will not dawn the red, white and blue this season, one could argue they are a slightly more complete team from top to bottom.
They might not possess as much skill as years past as a whole, but with increased depth on the back end and better goaltending, the Amerks didn’t take too far of a step back.
Departures: Scott Wedgewood, Alex Wilcox, Victor Olofsson, Danny O’Reagen, Wayne Simpson, Alex Nylander, Brendan Guhle (midseason), Matt Tennyson, Justin Bailey (midseason), Kyle Criscuolo, Jack Dougherty, Yannick Veilleux
Additions: Andrew Hammond, Jacob Bryson, Casey Fitzgerald, Tage Thompson, J.S. Dea, Curtis Lazar, Jarrett Burton, Brett Murray
I’m not going to include players like Bryson, Fitzgerald and Thompson as they’ve been around the organization at least a year and shouldn’t need an introduction.
After a year of Scott Wedgewood and Alex Wilcox stopping pucks, the Amerks will have new faces between the pipes.
Andrew Hammond doesn’t need much of an introduction. Back in the 2014-15 season, Hammond was struggling with the Binghamton Senators (now Belleville Senators). He posted a 3.51 GAA and .898 S%, but got an opportunity with the big club when injuries hit. That’s when the legend of the Hamburgler began. Hammond finished the season with a 1.79 GAA and .941S% in 24 games with Ottawa.
Ever since that season, Hammond has remained the 3rd goalie in the Senators and Avalanche systems, which mirrors what is expected from Hammond in Rochester. He’s a solid goalie all around, but hasn’t done enough to establish himself as a backup in the NHL.
Remember, there are only 62 opportunities for goalies to be on an NHL roster, so there are plenty of solid goaltenders starting for AHL teams. Hammond is one of those.
One of the most hyped prospects in the Sabres system, UPL starts the season on the IR after offseason hip surgery. He has a huge frame (6’5″ and around 200lbs), is agile in net with poise beyond his years. Once healthy, you’ll see his explosive movements from side to side and his ability to make desperation saves look less desperate than other goalies.
Combining his athleticism and frame, it’s hard not to get excited about UPL in an Amerks jersey. That being said, there is a chance even once healthy, UPL won’t be in Rochester. I discuss this further later on in the article.
Regardless of what happens this season, it’s not far fetched to think UPL can take over the starting role in the 2020-21 season.
Jean-Sebastian (J.S.) Dea
A player I assume will get a healthy dose of center this season, Dea is a steady playmaker. After splitting time in the Devils and the Penguins organizations, accumulating 23 games in the NHL and 46 AHL games, J.S. Dea joins the Amerks as a much needed top six forward.
He’ll give the powerplay a boost on the front end after players like O’Regan, Olofsson and Nylander departed. With a large role in the Amerks offense, it wouldn’t surprise me if Dea ends up in the realm of a point per game status.
Another player that spent time in the Penguins organization last season, Burton is a defensive center that’ll slot in somewhere in the bottom 6. In fact, Burton won “Defensive Player of the Year” last season for the Wilkes-Barre Penguins (not the entire AHL), the first forward to do so since the awards creation in 2015-16.
Burton will kill penalties and take defensive zone draws. He’s one of those players that rarely gets credit for what he does, but every team needs one.
It was just confirmed yesterday that Murray was signing a one year AHL contract. The gigantic winger tore up the USHL last year (as he should have), but cracking the Amerks lineup might take some time. To be fair, it’s his first professional season, so he’ll need to get up to speed not only without the puck, but making plays and making a positive impact on the ice.
He can swarm around the net, has decently soft hands in close and has the frame to make an impact physically. It might take a bit for Murray to get this all incorporated in his game at the same time, but once he becomes more comfortable and confident, I believe Murray can be an effective bottom six forward. Only time will tell, but he’s a rookie so there is plenty of time.
Things to watch for this season:
Where does Ukko Pekka Luukkonen fit in this season?
The natural progression that most people predicted/hoped for was some form of UPL backing up Hammond to start, then taking over as the starter by the end of the season. Considering UPL is still recovering from hip surgery, that plan isn’t as realistic anymore.
What I believe will happen is he’ll have a relatively extended stint with Cincinnati as a rehab stint. When he’s ready to go, that’s where the Amerks front office and coaches might have a tough decision. As we saw in an abbreviated stint in Rochester, Jonas Johansson can hold his own as a backup in Rochester. That’s where he’ll start this season, but what happens if he’s playing really well all season behind Hammond when UPL is ready?
Do you keep UPL in Cincinnati and let him get starter reps down there? We’ll have to wait and see.
How will Rasmus Asplund perform in his second season?
It was a tale of two seasons for Asplund. The first half of the 2018-19 campaign was a forgettable one for the young Swede. The second half though, he found his game and excelled. Now with an increased role into the top six, Asplund will need to be a playmaking pivot between two scoring wingers, while playing responsibly in his own end.
This is a big year for Asplund, who got an extended look in the preseason, but ultimately didn’t play well enough to crack the roster. I’ll stand by the statement I made about a month or so ago, if Asplund starts strong and keeps that pace, I could see him getting time in Buffalo in the second half of the season.
Will the Amerks make the playoffs and get out of the first round?
This essential took over my predictions/expectations section, mostly because this season will be hard to predict. There are a lot of new faces and what I believe is less skill on the front end, but hopefully more depth throughout the lineup. I believe they will make the playoffs due to how solid they are at all three positions, but injuries and/or a bad stretch could tighten the collar on their playoff hopes. I still expect them to make the postseason, but it might not be as clear cut as the past couple years.
As for making it out of the first round? You’re not going to like my answer. While I’m a fan and want them to win it all, I have to be objective and say I don’t think they improved from last season. If the past two seasons ended with first round exits and the team doesn’t upgrade, I don’t feel comfortable saying they will this season.
Again, I hope they do, it’d be fantastic for the city of Rochester in which I call home, but as of October 4, 2019, I just don’t see it. On the bright side, it’s the beginning of October, there is plenty of time to make me eat crow.
As I did last year, I’ll give a lineup that I believe would be best suited for the Amerks this season. Between a max on veterans who can play in a game and getting everyone time, the Amerks lineup will change constantly. That being said, I guarantee this won’t even be the lineup for tonight’s season opener against Syracuse, but these are just for fun so let’s take a look.
Smith – Asplund – Thompson
A couple playmakers with a big bodied sniper? Yes please. No ugly turnovers trying to be fancy and commit to the defensive end and they will do well.
Leier – Dea – Lazar
Speed. Whether it’s attacking on the forecheck to cause turnovers or gaining momentum through the neutral zone into to o-zone, I like this line to keep pressure on opposing defenses with their speed.
Wilson – Porter – Oglevie
I like this line a lot, don’t let this being the third line detract you from the fact that quietly, these three could be key for Rochester. A couple veterans with a young, skilled forward likely won’t get the top defensive match ups from their opponents and could cause havoc in the o-zone, while staying solid in their own end.
Elie – Malone/Burton – D. Smith/Cornel/Murray
I could see Elie and Cornel seeing time on other lines, but if these are the guys that end up on the 4th line, I’d feel confident rolling them into the forward rotation. They might not put up the points, but they’ll provide much needed energy when there are lulls in a game and/or season.
Getting north-south speed, battling below the dots and causing turnovers defensively to get the puck moving forward are my main goals for this line, which I believe they can achieve.
Nelson – Redmond
These two guys can skate. It’d be a nightmare being a winger defending these guys. They can dart in and out on the offensive end and they’ll use their feet to stay in good positioning in their own end. Expect a decent amount of offense to coming solely from this pairing.
Bryson – Borgen
I liked this as a potential pairing back in the summer because they compliment each other nicely. Bryson moves the puck and his feet very well, but is undersized so having a big, mean partner in Borgen seems like a good fit.
Borgen isn’t a slouch when it comes to moving the puck either or finding open space to use his above average skating, so to me, this was a no brainer.
MacWilliam/Hickey – Fitzgerald
Another rookie, puck moving defenseman paired up with a sandpaper type of partner is the best way to ease Fitzgerald (and Bryson) into their first professional season.
From what I’ve gathered, Fitzgerald is able to adapt to the role he’s put into, so I don’t see his abilities getting hindered on the third pairing much if at all. He might not blow it up offensively, but as long as he’s solid defensively and moves the puck on breakouts and regroups properly, that’s good enough for me.
MacWilliam and Hickey might end up splitting their time in the lineup (maybe Hickey will tag in for Bryson or Fitzgerald if they need a night to watch from the press box), but both a defensive defensemen, so as long as they’re solid in their own end, they’ll fair just fine.
I’m not mentally prepared for all the Hamburgler jokes this season, but there are worse nicknames to have.
Johansson could very well make his case to stick around as the Amerks backup with his play, keep an eye on the games he’s in net.